Out of the Bottle - Embedded.com

Out of the Bottle


The genie really is out of the bottle this time. As first reported in Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper and later by ABCNews.com, Russian engineer and entrepreneur Dmitri Zhurin recently invented a talking bottle cap. This is a bottle cap that looks like any other, but houses a tiny battery-powered embedded system that speaks to those gathered around the bottle for a drink.

Why would anyone want a talking bottle cap? For several reasons, according to the inventor. First, because Russians like to drink, but don't like to drink alone. Initially, the voice in the cap offers only generally helpful instructions like “pour.” As additional drinks are taken, however, the cap's performance gets livelier, ultimately providing a friendly group of incorporeal drinking companions. The second reason for a talking bottle cap is that it can help out with the toasting duties. It seems Russians mostly drink in communal rounds at parties, with a toast preceding each round. Coming up with a large number of toasts in one evening can be a real challenge for the host or hostess. Clearly, these problems are so compelling that the market had to respond with a solution-hence Mr. Zhurin's Vodka Genie. Now, whether or not consumers will actually buy the Vodka Genie is an interesting question. What's more interesting to me, though, is that here's one more place where no one expected computing power to turn up-and yet it has.

It would be a major understatement to say that in 1943, when Thomas Watson commissioned the oft-cited study that concluded there was a total world market for five computers and that IBM would make all of them, no one could have imagined computers inside bottle caps. The first commercial microprocessor wouldn't even be developed for three more decades!

Yet look at where we are less than three decades after the invention of that first microprocessor. We are literally surrounded by computing engines-the vast majority of them unrecognized as such. And this is only the beginning of the next era in computing-the embedded era.

So much attention is focused on developments at the high end-cheaper 32-bit processors, entire systems-on-a-chip, increasing memory budgets, connectivity to the world, millions of lines of code, the need for better development languages and debug tools, and increasing use of off-the-shelf software components-that it's easy to forget that there are ongoing developments at the low end of the spectrum too.

Processors of the 16-, 8-, and 4-bit varieties get cheaper every year too. New family members add more on chip memory and peripherals, at no additional cost. Some even include specialized capabilities like speech synthesis, for niche applications like talking dolls and bottle caps. All for just pennies a chip, at the current 4-bit price-points.

The point I want to make is that 4- and 8-bit micros will never be replaced. In truth, the number of new opportunities for small micros is expanding at a much faster rate than the number of new uses for 32-bitters. And it only takes a single engineer and a few months to design and build a disposable product like the Vodka Genie, which could very well sell millions before this reaches your mailbox.

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